MADRID -- Spain's King Juan Carlos said Monday that he was abdicating in favor of Crown Prince Felipe, his 46-year-old son, explaining in an address to the nation that it was time for a new generation to "move to the front line" and face the country's challenges.
The king's abdication, after almost four decades on the throne, follows health problems but also comes amid a decline in his popularity, particularly as a result of a corruption scandal centered on his son-in-law that has cast a harsh light on the royal family's lifestyle and finances at a time of economic crisis and record joblessness in Spain.
King Juan Carlos said he resolved to abdicate in January, when he turned 76. He said a generational change would open "a new chapter of hope" for a country hit by a deep economic problems, while insisting that his son "represents stability," for Spain as well as for the monarchy.
The king's son, who will become King Felipe VI, is a former Olympic yachtsman who is regarded as relatively untouched by his family's scandals. In May 2004, he married Letizia Ortiz, a divorced television journalist. Even before Monday's announcement, Prince Felipe, who studied international relations at Georgetown University, had increasingly substituted for his ailing father on diplomatic trips and at official events.
The abdication was first made official Monday by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who called King Juan Carlos a "tireless defender of our interests." The government is set to meet today to discuss the legislative changes required for the handover, which Mr. Rajoy said would happen soon.
Mr. Rajoy called the abdication "proof of the maturity of our democracy," a message echoed by most of Spain's other party leaders. But some far-left politicians called instead for a referendum on whether to maintain Spain's monarchy, with anti-royal protests also convened in Madrid and other cities Monday evening.
King Juan Carlos came to the throne in 1975, after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco. He was credited with playing a key role in consolidating Spain's return to democracy, alongside politicians led by Adolfo Suarez, whom the king chose as prime minister. Suarez died in March. In February 1981, after rebel officers held lawmakers hostage at gunpoint, the king helped abort their military coup by making a televised speech in which he ordered soldiers to return to their barracks.
He had also been cast as providing stability in a land confronting separatist drives in the Basque region and in Catalonia. Separatism has recently gained momentum in Catalonia, whose politicians plan an independence referendum in November that Mr. Rajoy has vowed to prevent because it violates Spain's Constitution. King Juan Carlos has also defended Spain's unity, saying in December, shortly after the Catalan referendum plan, that the monarchy wanted a Spain in which "we can all fit in."
The king's reputation has been tainted by questions about the spending habits of his 48-year-old daughter, Princess Cristina, and her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, the Duke of Palma, who is under investigation for allegedly embezzling millions from sports events.
The fall in the royal family's public standing also encouraged Spain's media to drop its long-standing deference toward the monarchy and delve into the love life of the king and other previously taboo subjects.
The king himself brought on more scrutiny in April 2012, after falling during a private elephant hunting trip to Africa and requiring hip replacement surgery. The public outrage triggered by the trip's disclosure forced King Juan Carlos to make a rare public apology.
Last year, the main Socialist opposition party took steps in Parliament that, for the first time, formally requested information about the king's personal finances, after the newspaper El Mundo revealed that Juan Carlos inherited money from his father, hidden in a Swiss bank. The royal household eventually said the Swiss money had been spent, and the account long closed.